Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Maze Runner (2014) movie review

Overall verdict: 8/10

The Good: Intriguing mystery premise, well rounded characterisations, magnificent production design, well paced narrative, touches on social commentary

The Bad: cliched storyline, shaky camera cinematography, "designated hero" syndrome for main character

3D Readiness: Post filming 3D conversion.
IMax-ability: Tight shaky shots of running do not work in iMax. 

His name is Thomas. That is all he knows. He has been sent via the mysterious "box" into a contained colony of boys called "the glade". Nobody knows why they are there, only that they cannot leave. Around the glade lies the maze where only the fastest and bravest among them, dubbed "maze runners", get to explore in the hopes of finding a way out. Thomas' arrival causes a schism among the boys and strange incidents start happening one after the other. As the perfect peaceful society of the Glade is slowly torn asunder, Thomas must unravel the secrets of the maze and confront the horrors within. 

Secrets, half-truths, and a sense that all is not what it seems. I have always loved a good sci if mystery. Our premise of a community of male teens isolated from the world is a premise many would be familiar with. The group rivalries, the competition for alpha male status, the unique lifestyle and forms of punishment; MAZE RUNNER takes advantage of its slow moving first half to build that world of lost boys. All the while, the constant mystery of the maze lingers. And just when things start to wind down, the writers throw more surprises into the mix which give the film a much needed sense of urgency. What are these surprises? No spoilers now. But rest assured, this movie has great pacing.

MAZE RUNNER is how I always imagined a gritty blockbuster movie would look based on those printed mazes in activity books we used to trace with crayons when we were kids. The maze itself is marvelously designed, oozing with a sense of dread. The ominous walls combines an ancient monolithic look with pieces of worn out future tech peeking out the corners; just enough to give this uneasy sense of that something is not quite right. Couple all that with some truly spine chilling sound effects and the movie starts to cross into horror territory. 

It is to mazes kind of like what they did to a simple board game called Battleship. Unlike the battleship movie, MAZE RUNNER gives us some well rounded characters with believable motives and decent development. Yes you have some clich├ęd stereotypes in the benevolent but status quo upholding leader, the hot headed "warrior chief" alpha male edging for a fight, the conflicted second in command, and an adorable sidekick for the main character. Yet it is this sense of familiarity with the character archetypes and the isolated single gender community setting that let's one ease into the story without being alienated by the already alienating premise.

Amazing as the movie is, MAZE RUNNER is not without some flaws. Main character Thomas suffers from the typical designated hero syndrome. He is not a kid who earns his heroism or the respect of the group. From the get go, everything important revolves around him, he is able to do startling things that no one else can. You know he is special and the plot does not hide that or let it develop naturally. Director Wes Ball crafts a decently paced narrative with top notch special effects, but the visuals tend to be marred by his obsession with out of focus shaky cameras in action scenes. Perhaps the biggest misstep is some poorly placed flashbacks that could have completely ruined the mystery element for audiences familiar with certain video games (hint: Portal). 

I admit to not having read the original book so I would not know how close it is to the source material. On its own, MAZE RUNNER is The grandchild of LORD OF THE FLIES and TV's LOST. It combines tried and true story beats sieved through an intriguing premise and a decent mystery (despite being almost undone by the ill advised flashbacks). It avoids many mistakes other adaptations of young adult novels make, like lingering on romance subplots, and leaves a decent sequel hook that leaves you wanting more.

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Entertainment: A
Story: B-
Acting: B+
Characters: A
Music: B+
Replay value: A
"Brains": B

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Need For Speed (2014) movie review

Overall verdict: 7.5/10

The Good: Intensely choreographed races, dynamic camerawork,  

The Bad: cliched storyline, flat characterisations, 

3D Readiness: Post filming 3D conversion.
IMax-ability: Wide shots of open country racing and first person POV shots lend itself well to iMax.

When a need for speed movie was first announced, people questioned its necessity. After all, a movie based around exotic cars, high octane races, police chases and racing rival had already been made and it is called THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS. Fortunately, 3 movies into the franchise and the Vin Diesel star vehicle dissed its racing concept and became a series of straight up heist movies. NEED FOR SPEED fills the vacuums it left with a plot focused squarely on racing instead of having racing as a side dish to a police/criminal cat and mouse game.

Taking its name from the long running Need For Speed video game franchise, NEED FOR SPEED manages to...........wait what? A video game movie? Yup, we can all hear the critics putting on their prejudice cap and throwing out the mandatory scathing review. All things considered, yes NEED FOR SPEED is not award winning material. It has a done-to-death "underdog out for revenge against a big wig" storyline, simplistic characterisations, and every single racing movie cliche you can think off.

Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul stars as Tobey Marshall, a down-on-his-luck mechanic who enters night time street races to try and keep his shop out of the red. One day, Tobey and his pals get hired by his childhood rival turned millionaire Dino Brewster to customise a one of a kind Ford Mustang. When Tobey's earnest nature and driving skills wins him the favour of Julia, who purchases the car, Dino challenges Tobey and his best friend Pete to a race. Too proud to lose, Dino knocks Pete off road to his death during the race, implicating Tobey as the prime suspect. Now Tobey serves his time and gets out of jail with vengeance and a plan. Catch the attention of the mysterious "Monarch" who runs the De Leon cross country race, outrun the cops, and get his revenge against Dino.

Sacrilege! Some may cry. Why is this movie not about characters that were featured in the games? Where is Zephyr and his youtube videos of illegal racing thus spurring the Cops to try and take him down? Where is Caleb Reese, leader of "the wraiths"? Why is the main character's girlfriend not named Samantha?

Oh how shallow they look. The whole story in this movie, the characters, the cars, the races, the very style of the cinematography; it is all the pure distillation of the games' concepts.  For those who had played the Need For Speed games, this movie is a real thrill as it pays tribute to most of the signature concepts of past games. The whole underground race organised by Michael Keaton's "Monarch" harkens back to "Need For Speed: Underground" series, the main character and his crew of mechanics pays tribute to "Need for Speed Carbon", the various police chases and the fact that our character is an ex-convict on the run is right up there with "Hot pursuit" and "Most Wanted". Even the main car and the holographic heads up display is exactly like in the games.

Cliched story aside, NEED FOR SPEED is surprisingly well done. Cinematography is magnificent not just for a video game movie but for any movie. Shots are bright whether day or night, colours are rich and vibrant without breaking the sense of reality, and beautiful locales are brought to life with wide steady camera angles. A far cry from the typical jitter cam and quick cuts that plagues car scenes in movies. Perhaps the most impressive is the fact that most of the movie is done with practical effects.

On a side note, the script does allow our actors to shine despite . The love/hate bickering between Aaron Paul's Tobey and Imogen Poots' Julia is a real treat showing the chemistry the two actors cook up between each other. We get a good peppering of witty laugh-out-loud humour particularly from Tobey's mechanic crew pals. Do not expect dialogue that is layered or complicated though. This is straight up good guy underdog vs rich bad guy smug snake. Between Dino's evil scowling and Tobey trying his darndest to master the "intense" stare, the subplot about their rivalry seems to hold as much weight as a rivalry between playground bullies.

So yes, NEED FOR SPEED is in no way avant grade cinema with its level of storytelling and dialogue. It is however a very enjoyable racing movie and one good example of how to properly capture the essence of a video game despite detracting from in-game story lines. Accompanied by an astounding soundtrack that sounds like a cover mix of Brian Tyler and Hans Zimmer, NEED FOR SPEED is fun, exciting and an all out thrill to watch despite its shortcomings. Until the FAST AND FURIOUS series ditches the overdone heist/chase plots, NEED FOR SPEED is here providing pure adrenaline pumping blockbuster racing to fill that gap.

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Entertainment: A
Story: C-
Acting: A-
Characters: A-
Music: B+
Replay value: A
"Brains": B-